The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Christopher Allen

1969: The Black Box of Con­cep­tual Art Univer­sity of Syd­ney, War Me­mo­rial Art Gallery, un­til Oc­to­ber 25

THE first work you en­counter in this re­con­struc­tion of Aus­tralia’s first con­cep­tual art ex­hi­bi­tion — Burn Cut­forth Rams­den at Pi­na­cotheca gallery in Melbourne in 1969 — is an aerial pho­to­graph of a non­de­script city block ac­com­pa­nied by its pre­cise lo­ca­tion ex­pressed as co-or­di­nates of lon­gi­tude and lat­i­tude. Th­ese tell us that we are in New York, or more ex­actly in Brook­lyn. In the boom years of large-scale ab­strac­tion, widely pro­moted as the con­sum­ma­tion of the his­tory of paint­ing, this small and vis­ually unas­sum­ing piece must have seemed even more sur­pris­ing than it does to­day.

It is, af­ter all, when sail­ing on the open sea, far from land, that it is cus­tom­ary to ex­press lo­ca­tion in th­ese terms. For an Aus­tralian, in­ci­den­tally, such co-or­di­nates have a par­tic­u­lar sig­nif­i­cance, as it was the in­ven­tion of an ac­cu­rate marine chronome­ter in the 18th cen­tury that made the ex­act cal­cu­la­tion of lon­gi­tude pos­si­ble and al­lowed Cook to map first the Sand­wich Is­lands and then the east coast of Aus­tralia with such ac­cu­racy.

In any case, in a city we as­sume it is suf­fi­cient to tell peo­ple we are near the cor­ner of one street and an­other. We don’t need to re­fer to a univer­sal ge­o­graph­i­cal sys­tem be­cause we can rely on a lo­cal and fa­mil­iar set of lines in the built en­vi­ron­ment; we don’t have to de­scribe lo­ca­tion within the or­der of na­ture be­cause it is eas­ier to de­scribe it within the struc­tures pro­duced by cul­ture.

To record where we are in this ac­cu­rate, ob­jec­tive but cum­ber­some and not read­ily in­tel­li­gi­ble man­ner is in ef­fect to be­have as though the city and its streets did not ex­ist; as though the ur­ban fab­ric had dis­ap­peared and left in its place a desert. It is to sug­gest, in other words, that the or­der of cul­ture that is em­bod­ied in the struc­ture of the city is ei­ther nonex­is­tent or has be­come un­re­li­able as a guide and sys­tem of ref­er­ence.

One thinks of Jose Ortega y Gas­set’s im­age of cul­ture in the mod­ern world as the frag­ments of a ves­sel to which a ship­wrecked man clings as he is car­ried by the ocean cur­rents — or of TS Eliot’s words at the end of The Waste Land: ‘‘ th­ese frag­ments I have shored against my ru­ins’’. But in the post-war years cul­ture seemed to be not merely ru­ined and frag­men­tary, but poi­soned by the new in­dus­tries of com­mer­cial en­ter­tain­ment and ad­ver­tis­ing.

Cle­ment Green­berg had al­ready iden­ti­fied this prob­lem in a fa­mous es­say, Avant-garde and Kitsch (1939), in which he ar­gued the avant-garde was the le­git­i­mate heir to the tra­di­tion of high art, but was forced into more re­con­dite ter­ri­tory by the in­ex­orable ad­vance of kitsch into ar­eas for­merly oc­cu­pied by se­ri­ous art. But Green­berg was the most prom­i­nent sup­porter of the ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist style — ‘‘ Amer­i­can-style paint­ing’’ — that had swept the world in the post-war decades and had by now be­come not only an of­fi­cial style but an in­vest­ment com­mod­ity.

Ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ism was not the con­sum­ma­tion of the art of paint­ing, but it was the cli­max of the mod­ernist myths of new be­gin­nings, the era­sure of his­tory and mem­ory, ab­so­lute orig­i­nal­ity and di­rect ex­pres­sion. Ever-larger can­vasses were brushed, stained or drib­bled with paint; the im­me­di­acy of the sub­stance and the mark of the artist’s ges­ture were taken as hall­marks of au­then­tic­ity — it­self an im­por­tant con­cern in the aes­thetic as in the moral think­ing of those years.

In stark op­po­si­tion to the claims of such work, Mel Rams­den’s Se­cret Paint­ing (1967-68) con­sists of a black square, again jux­ta­posed with a mes­sage: ‘‘ The con­tent of this paint­ing is in­vis­i­ble; the char­ac­ter and di­men­sion of the con­tent are to be kept per­ma­nently se­cret, known only to the artist.’’ The in­scrip­tion makes it clear that we are not

to think of this in the same way as Kaz­imir Male­vich’s Black Square (1915), which is con­cerned with min­i­mal vis­ual ex­pe­ri­ence. Rams­den’s black sur­face is not some­thing to be looked at and pon­dered as a vis­ual ob­ject: it is not pre­sented as a paint­ing in it­self, but an ob­sta­cle to vis­i­bil­ity, im­plic­itly claim­ing to be cov­er­ing over a real or pu­ta­tively au­then­tic paint­ing that lies un­derneath.

Other pieces ex­tend the cri­tique from works of art to a broader con­sid­er­a­tion of lan­guage and sys­tems of mean­ing — in­deed Ian Burn and Rams­den were af­fil­i­ated with the Art & Lan­guage group. Words and ideas were their real in­ter­ests, even if they were never able to pro­duce works as com­pletely dis­em­bod­ied as is im­plied by their some­times con­vo­luted texts, fall­ing into in­com­pre­hen­si­bil­ity in their very at­tempts to ar­tic­u­late their pro­ce­dures in absolutely ob­jec­tive and dis­pas­sion­ate terms.

Thus Burn’s Three De­scrip­tions (1968) still re­quires three grey panels and neatly sten­cilled let­ter­ing to achieve its ef­fect, for the con­cep­tual idea is in­sep­a­ra­ble from the solid ma­te­ri­al­ity that is the sub­ject of the work. The three panels are in­scribed with words that at­tempt to de­scribe them, three rows on each panel, and the point is sim­ply that each at­tempt at char­ac­ter­is­ing the same very min­i­mal ob­ject, some­thing in­deed with ap­par­ently hardly any properties wor­thy of note, is none­the­less en­tirely dif­fer­ent — one be­ing ‘‘ Flat panel / Slightly wider than high / Painted grey’’, an­other of­fer­ing pre­cise mea­sure­ments, and the last one a se­ries of pos­si­ble sub­jec­tive eval­u­a­tions of the im­pas­sive sur­face.

More purely ver­bal in ef­fect is Rams­den’s Six Neg­a­tives (1968-69), which ac­tu­ally con­sists of eight sheets pho­tographed from a th­e­saurus and re­pro­duced in neg­a­tive so that the words ap­pear in white against a black back­ground. What is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing about this work is that it is pages of antonyms that have been copied, and in each case the pos­i­tive terms have been blacked out, so that we are left to in­fer from the antonyms what the cor­re­spond­ing orig­i­nals might have been.

The work is thus dou­bly a neg­a­tive, both vis­ually and se­man­ti­cally, and at the same time hints at ques­tions about whether dou­ble neg­a­tives equate to a pos­i­tive — is not-bad the same as good, for ex­am­ple — as well as whether all or many words re­ally have ad­e­quate op­po­sites, even if the mind is prone to think­ing in bi­nary terms.

Each case, in­deed, seems to raise its own col­lec­tion of dif­fi­cul­ties as soon as we stop to think about it care­fully. What is the op­po­site of woman? Clearly, within the rules of the game, man, but equally clearly not in the same sense that the op­po­site of end must be be­gin­ning; and here too the th­e­saurus recog­nises am­bi­gu­ity by in­clud­ing the term mid­dle, which, un­like the po­lar terms be­gin­ning and end, has no clear op­po­site.

What is the op­po­site of glut­tony? Pre­sum­ably tem­per­ance, a term al­most for­got­ten in its orig­i­nal sense and as­so­ci­ated to­day only with the con­sump­tion of al­co­hol and then mis­tak­enly with ab­sten­tion in­stead of mod­er­a­tion. With pain we seem to be on safer ground (it must be plea­sure, al­though again the sim­ple an­swer raises ques­tions) and in the case of wrong, it must be right, al­though there is a world of dif­fer­ence be­tween fac­tual and moral right and wrong. What­ever can the op­po­site of lu­bri­ca­tion be? And some terms, such as loss, are so mul­ti­far­i­ous in their mean­ings that it is only the fact that the th­e­saurus is ar­ranged by themes that al­lows us to re­strict the mean­ing in this case to the cat­e­gory of prop­erty, and thus to con­clude the an­swer must be profit or gain.

Th­ese con­cep­tual games may ap­pear triv­ial, but their in­ter­est con­sists in draw­ing our at­ten­tion to things we may have no­ticed vaguely in pass­ing but never con­tem­plated in any sus­tained way. And they are ques­tions whose co­gency also be­longs to its time, to the time of a cul­tural ship­wreck when the com­mer­cial kitsch that Green­berg wrote of was spread­ing like a ma­lig­nant growth, and when lan­guage in par­tic­u­lar, which had been sys­tem­at­i­cally abused al­ready by to­tal­i­tar­ian regimes across the world, was now be­ing cor­rupted by the mass me­dia and ad­ver­tis­ing in­dus­tries of the Western world, with Amer­ica, the home of th­ese new in­dus­tries, in the lead.

Th­ese works thus evoke a cul­tural en­vi­ron­ment in which the cor­rup­tion of con­sumer cul­ture has reached into the level of high art and the very lan­guage with which we ar­tic­u­late a cri­tique of the sit­u­a­tion. In­deed much of the work ul­ti­mately is deeply pes­simistic, none more overtly so than Rams­den’s Null Piece (1969), which con­sists of a blank page ac­com­pa­nied by a para­graph that ties it­self in some­thing of a knot in its at­tempts to sug­gest the blank page both is and is not a work in any sense read­ily grasped by the mind — whether for­mal or con­cep­tual.

One senses here a tacit con­fes­sion — or per­haps rather a pro­fes­sion — of ni­hilism, and per­haps the rea­son that Burn later said that con­cep­tu­al­ism had failed. In re­al­ity all the ex­per­i­men­tal move­ments of mod­ernism are ul­ti­mately fail­ures, in the sense that they do not re­sult in an id­iom that can con­tinue to be prac­tised but con­sti­tute a se­ries of bril­liant and un­re­peat­able mo­ments. As we have seen be­fore, it is an ab­sur­dity to at­tempt to make cu­bist, fau­vist, dada or sur­re­al­ist works to­day.

If there is any sug­ges­tion of some­thing more pos­i­tive, be­yond the wreck of con­tem­po­rary cul­ture, it is per­haps in the glimpse of na­ture in Roger Cut­forth’s Noon-Time Piece, con­sist­ing of a se­ries of pho­to­graphs of the sky taken daily at noon dur­ing the course of April 1969 — a cal­en­dar for the month is ex­hib­ited along­side the pho­to­graphs, each day struck off as the cor­re­spond­ing pho­to­graph is taken. Above the same city on which we looked down in the first piece dis­cussed above, the sky reg­is­ters the con­stantly chang­ing face of na­ture in the north­ern spring.

Less ob­vi­ous but even more in­ter­est­ing is the case of Burn’s pho­to­copier works, in which sheets of pa­per have been re­copied in suc­ces­sion so ini­tially minute specks or marks are mul­ti­plied and in­ten­si­fied: in the ter­mi­nol­ogy of the in­for­ma­tion the­ory that arose af­ter the war, in part out of the ex­pe­ri­ence of the prac­ti­cal prob­lems of mil­i­tary ra­dio trans­mis­sion, we have here an in­stance of com­mu­ni­ca­tion in­volv­ing no sig­nal con­tent but a grad­ual ac­cu­mu­la­tion of the ran­dom ef­fects that arise in trans­mis­sion and which are called noise.

Th­ese works made of noth­ing but trans­mis­sion noise could be in­ter­preted as an ex­treme ex­pres­sion of ni­hilism, but here it is also fas­ci­nat­ing to see some­thing be­ing gen­er­ated lit­er­ally out of noth­ing. The fact that the cloud of specks ends up look­ing dis­con­cert­ingly like the starry heav­ens does not mean Burn was a mys­tic in dis­guise, but it does re­call some­thing like Par­menides’ no­to­ri­ously dif­fi­cult doc­trine that noth­ing can­not ex­ist.

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